Ancestral Research: Why It Matters And Where To Look
On more than one occasion I have found myself sitting at the end of the couch with my laptop under a reading lamp in an otherwise dark room. It’s nearing midnight and my partner is already asleep in the next room, but I am here, unable to pull myself away from following the breadcrumbs left by my ancestors; sparse clues [some bigger than others] left on the long path of online ancestry sites and search engine results. I am awake well past my average bedtime, but I am utterly ignited by each and every piece I am unearthing.
In a momentary pause in the quest for ancestral breadcrumbs, I feel the magic of the moment. As magic moments tend to be, it’s a sensation that feels undefinable with just one word. It’s a realization of how incredible this moment is: me — three, four, + more generations into the future — sitting in my dark living room in the middle of the night, scouring the internet armed with only a handful of names and birthdates, pining for insight into who my people were, where they came from, and how we’re connected to one another. I am in complete reverence of the notion of a descendant going back through time to know their people and their places, and I imagine for a moment what my ancestors might feel knowing that their great-great daughter — with whom they never shared a lifetime — yearns to know them.
I became seriously curious about my ancestry only a few years ago, and I began consciously cultivating a relationship with my ancestors really only within this year. What I mean by “seriously curious” and “consciously cultivating a relationship” is that often times, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are already existing in relationship with our ancestors by simply living. Whether we are aware of our connections to them is the result of a deeper inquiry.
Allow me to explain further: the foods we eat, the leisures we take pleasure in, the places we live, the places we like to visit, the language we use, the values we hold, the spirit that guides us, the traditions we keep — may be the direct or indirect result of our ancestors lives.
Back in my community college days, I took a course on child development in relation to culture, gender, and identity. I don’t recall much from many of my required general ed classes, but this one I remember choosing with piqued curiosity and a desire to explore these concepts within the scope of my own seemingly culture-less life.
My professor assigned a sort of show-and-tell, asking us to bring an object from home that represented our culture. She sent us home with the added reminder that even if we felt culture-less [as I suspect many other Western world white folks do] and therefore felt unable to deliver on the assignment, that we were in fact not lacking culture. She assured us that signs of our personal culture dwells within our home spaces and it may just take a harder look to see it.
I looked hard. It felt impossible to look for something when I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I followed the ancestral breadcrumb trail from the question of traditions to the answer of food, which led, naturally, to the pantry. There I found it, the ever-constant in our household: a box of dried pasta. There it was, an unassuming connection line to my family traditions, to my great-grandparents, to their families, to their homeland; an indirect, Westernized interpretation of our culture.
Over this past year of deepening into my relationship with my ancestors, it quite often still comes back to food. Evolving from the discovery of that box of dried pasta in my pantry, I now prefer to make my own from scratch using manual tools; some that were passed down from my great-grandmother; one a replica of a boxed Parmesan cheese grater my aunt remembers my great-grandfather using; the slow, slow. This, for me, is a ritual. It is an intentional practice for cultivating a relationship with my ancestors in our church, the kitchen, with our sacrament, pasta.
The journey on the path to ancestral understanding continues for me, as I expect it will forever. I am clearing the overgrown path, left untended since just a couple of generations back. Piece by piece, I am exposing bits of breadcrumbs that feel like jewels in my hands. Personal stories shared by relatives or finding a new name to add to the family tree feel like a bonus these days rather than my sole desire on this journey. I am finding rewarding threads of connection to my ancestors in the ordinary moments of living my life.
Some information that I’m longing for I may never find, people and places gone forever merely because they have no paper trail and because some descendants along the way chose not to talk about them and keep their memory alive. So, I pour this part of my heart into tending to the fragments that I have pieced together and by practicing some of the simple pleasures that I know my ancestors also delighted in, like cooking and learning their language, or feeling joy in the art of adornment. And still, I often pause in reverence for the magic of this love.
Layla F. Saad explores the thoughtful question of what it means to be a good ancestor which she answers for herself as the intention “to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation for those who will come after she is gone.” I am reflecting on this in this phase of my life, especially during the past almost twelve months where life has both slowed and simplified and equally become more complicated.
“Healing” and “liberation” for ourselves and future generations feel of the utmost priority. My ancestors lived their version of this and now I am examining how I can build off their work with some of my own revisions. Things that they chose to abandon, identities they shedded for the sake of their version of progression are things that I am now reclaiming as significant and valuable.
As I move through my life, I am viewing myself as a future ancestor and trying, where I can, to live in a way that makes me a good one. What stories might be told about me three generations into the future? How might I be remembered? It goes beyond an egoic vision for personal legacy, but rather an intention to contribute to a future, that I myself will not benefit from, in a way that heals, liberates, and inspires.
So why spend so much time on ancestral work? This:
For healing and liberation, for equipping future generations with the tools they need to confidently move along their path, for a strong inner sense of belonging that they can return to, for a healthy perspective on one’s place in and connection to the world, for a deep well of joy to reminisce on, for the sake of keeping alive old knowledge, arts, and magic.
For keeping the trail clear and showing them how to tend to it, so that they can always find their way back home.
“There is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me — and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
— Utah Phillips, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere
What objects, customs, traditions, etc. in your life are connected to your ancestors?
What does it mean to you to be a good ancestor?
What will you want to be remembered for?
Is it important to you to be remembered by the ones to come after you? Is it important to you to remember the ones who came before you? Why?
a few resources for ancestral research.
Family Search A database created by the Mormon church. You are required to create an account but it is completely free. I have found some key pieces of information using this website.
Find A Grave This free site holds a large collection of member uploaded photos of gravesitems from all over the world. Search for your ancestors by name or region.
Ellis Island Records Comprising approximately 65 million searchable records, this free database allows you to examine immigration documents and find connections to your ancestry. I haven't used this site specifically but most of the records I've uncovered through other sites have been immigrant ship documents from Ellis Island.
Ancestry I have found a lot through this site, especially scans of documents, important dates that have led to other findings, and they offer hints to potential ancestors. Requires a membership subscription but they do offer a free 2-week trial.
My Heritage Similar to Ancestry, this site requires a membership subscription. But I have found some free leads here through general searches via Google. I searched for my great-grandfather's full name and his birthdate and place of birth and a result from My Heritage pulled up the names of his parents -- which felt like a major breakthrough! They also offer a free trial period which could allow you to get some key info before cancelling.
Mappa Dei Cognomi [map of last names] This is an interesting one for fellow friends of Italian and Sicilian descent: a surname map that shows the areas in Italy and Sicily where people with your surname currently live. If you don’t know where your ancestors were from, this could be a useful tool for acquiring a key detail to help you in your continuing search. I typed in all of my Italian ancestral last names that I know!